Tag Archives: cairo

The Magic Mountain

For the past week the riders who will be participating in the 2013 Tour d’Afrique have been gathering at the Cataract Pyramids Resort just outside Cairo. It is a large, rather isolated place. You could live inside its walls and never leave. In a way it reminds me of the Swiss Sanatorium in Thomas Mann’s Magic Mountain, with its microcosm of society, and its own culture, relationships and routines.

It seems a fitting place then to gather. The more than 50 riders and a dozen TdA staff will spend the next four months closely bound together. The resort has been our incubator. Over the past week it has seen our society and unique culture begin to develop. And, as in the Magic Mountain, that culture and society are being shaped by a common set of interests and concerns – not TB, but something almost as foreboding. It’s not all massages, fizzy drinks and sweet cakes. We know shit will happen.

The risk is that we use our bubble as insulation. This happens all over Africa in expat communities, which become ingrown and inward looking. We will, in effect, be a mobile expat community. There is no avoiding it. We travel as a group. We all wear neon-coloured lycra. We ride bikes that cost more than the annual income of many people we will meet. We speak different languages.

The challenge will be to use our community as a platform to connect rather than disconnect. We need to break out of the sanatorium.

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Plucked Ears

This morning I met up with Alex, a friend who lives in Cairo. We went over to Giza, near the pyramids to hang out in cafes for a while, then went for a wander to look for a barber. Since water on the Tour is strictly for drinking and not washing, I decided to cut all my hair off to reduce the number of things that need washing. We finally found a little hole in the wall place on a back street. It had a couple of the right kind of chair, mirrors, rows of pomades and various clippers and scissors on show. Looked good, so I went in and sat down on one of the right kind of chair. Hamzah, the barber, entered and closed the cell door behind him. The room darkened. I explained as well as I could what I wanted, sat back and surrendered myself to his expertise. Paper tissue was wrapped around my neck. A white plastic cape, with black Chinese writing all over it a great splashes of red that looked suspiciously like sprays of O– blood, was tied tightly over the tissue with double knots. Hamzah opened an old wooden drawer, the top of which was worn away as if used to check the sharpness of the straight razors waiting in a glass just above it. But for now he chose some electric clippers, which he used to quickly shave away the hair on the back and sides of my head. The hair on the top was reserved for scissors. I closed my eyes and the sound track was straight out of Edward Scissor Hands. I felt like a piece of topiary. When he had finished playing with the shrubbery he stuck his hand into a big jar of white, margarine-like pomade and was about to paint the top of my head when I opened my eyes and somehow managed to communicate that that was not what I wanted and that the hair on top was not to be sculpted but cut very short. His hand drifted happily and ominously from the pomade jar to the straight razors. His smile widened. His breathing slowed. My ability to communicate immediately improved and turned Hamzah’s smile to a quizzical frown. Reluctantly, he picked up the scissors and the sound track resumed. At this point I thought we were almost finished, but Hamzah thought differently. He picked up a spool of cotton thread from the counter top and simply said: ‘Egyptian way?’ I had no idea what he was on about but what harm could he do with a spool of thread. So I said, sure. Mistake. He wound the thread around his fingers like a cat’s cradle and started using it to capture and then pluck out the hairs on my right ear. It hurt like hell. I screamed. Alex laughed (what are friends for). Hamzah went on, enjoying himself immensely. “Smooth as baby” he said. “No more hair 3 months”. He moved over to the left ear. “Two minutes. Finish.” I was almost jumping out of the chair. Then he did my nose and the space between my eyebrows. I am glad I was wearing long pants. He was going for any hair he could see. Then all of a sudden he announced: “finish!” I was in so much pain it took me a while to take this in. I got up with as much dignity as I could muster and asked him how much. “Welcome Egypt.” He said,  “Free.” He had obviously had much more fun than I had. I gave him twenty pounds and let Alex help me out the door. But at least my ears are now as smooth as a baby’s bottom – and for three months.

Three Days to D-Day

2012-12-30 11.51.07The bike is set up and tuned, last minute purchases have been made and my laundry is done. The dominant mood among those I had dinner and a beer with last night was: ‘we’re here, we’re ready, let’s go’.  But we know that impatience is a negative emotion. We know that when you are impatient you cut corners and stop thinking clearly, that you fall back on intuition and prey to irrational emotions. We are a patient lot.

We are mature and experienced. We know that impatience was the real reason for the fall of man. We want too much and we want it now – Just one little apple. We know that impatience makes us ignore the present in anticipation of the future. And we want to enjoy the present. So we are ready to go now but we are a patient lot.

As Oscar Wilde put it in The Importance of Being Ernest: “If you are not too long, I will wait here for you all my life.”

The Girls Have Gone

2013-01-04 10.07.15At 8:30 last night two taxis stopped in front of the same block of flats two streets back from 26 July St. in Zamalek. One took Liz, Laura and Catherine to the airport for their flight back to Dar, school and work. The other took me to the Cataract Pyramid Resort, the gathering point for the 2013 Tour d’Afrique riders.  All change.

We have had a great holiday in Egypt. After our first three days in Cairo we went up to Luxor, where we did just about everything you could buy a ticket for: Karnak, The Luxor Museum, Luxor Temple, The Colossi of Memnon, Deir El-Bahri (Hatshepsut’s Temple), The Valley of the Kings, Deir El Medina (the Valley of the Workers). We hiked over mountains in the desert, we rode around Luxor in a Caleche, and we sailed down the Nile. It was both exhilarating and sad. The history and archeology are spectacular. In 1976, when I was last in Luxor, you didn’t have to buy a ticket for much. You could just wandered into and around Karnak, the Temple of Luxor and Deir El-Bahri. Now they have cleared away a whole neighborhood in order to pave a broad avenue from the Nile to Karnak, which is guarded by ticket booths, security guards and hawkers. But they have also done a lot to restore and better present these monuments. Unfortunately, however, tourism is moribund. People we spoke with said that tourism is at 10% of pre-revolution levels. The Japanese are still there and a few Europeans, but very few Americans. People are struggling. Many shops are closed and if open, quiet.  This was great for us. No crowds meant that we could spend lots of time wherever we wished and get around with ease. But it’s not so great for those who depend on tourism for their livelihood.

Back in Cairo we spent more time exploring a number of neighborhoods, Coptic, Islamic. The girls visited the Citadel and the markets. We took in the obligatory son et lumiere at the Sphinx (a bit cheesy really) and the girls went horse riding in the desert. On our last night we had dinner in Zamalek with friends from Dar who have just moved to Cairo. It was a lovely relaxed evening capped off with a frenetic last few minutes as we loaded into taxis. I will miss the girls but look forward to seeing them in Arusha in two months time.

Sudan Visa II

I was at the new Sudan Embassy by 9:15 this morning. There was red carpet all over the street in front of the building and a huge black Mercedes with tinted windows parked on top of the carpet. But there were few people around. However, the door was open so I wandered in. The visa section appeared to be closed. The room was filled with flowers, flags, banners, signs and posters. And there as a big ceremonial table and chairs in front of the visa counter. As it turns out, the Foregin Minister of the Sudan is in Town and there is a formal ceremony to open the new Embassy building this morning. Shortly after I entered the building an important looking guy – big and wearing a well cut blue suit – appeared through a door from an inner courtyard. I approached him and said I had come to pick up my visa and passport. He looked at me a growled a bit. But I think he made a quick calculation and decided that the best way to get rid of me before the Minister arrived in full splendour was to get me my passport. So he waved someone over and sent him to retrieve it. Two minutes later I had my passport with visa and was gone. It took less than 24 hours from the time I submitted my stuff to the receipt of the visa. And unless anybody managed to get same day service yseterday I may well have been the first person to get a visa from the new Embassy. Gotta be a good omen.

Midan Tahrir

2012-12-29 14.15.35We are off to Luxor on the sleeper train tonight. For the last three days we have played tourist in Cairo. On Friday we spent most of the day at the Egyptian Museum, a massive jumble of some 250,000 artifacts at the north end of Midan Tahrir. It could use some curating and a deep clean but the collection is impressive. Also, the Tutenchamun exhibition is in residence. We then wandered back into Zamalek looking for an internet café and some dinner. We ended up in a place called Arabica, where you can see that there is a literary and cultural life here. Yesterday we followed some of the traces of the Jan 25 revolution – in and out of Madin Tahrir and around the neighborhood then down to Abdeen.  The tent city is still very much in place. The old party headquarters is still a burnt out shell. All streets leading south out of the square are still blocked by massive concrete blocks. There is some great graffiti (see photo). Half the shops are boarded up and battered. The Pizza Hut just off the square has reopened but the McDonalds is still boarded up and closed. It has taken a massive hit. There is a real Mad Max feel about the place, as if it is about to slide off the edge. Today, we took the motorway out of the city to go to Giza to see the Pyramids. After crossing the Nile we passed mile after mile of ghost-like, half built apartment blocks. Then big piles of rubbish, some burning, began to fill the outside lane of the motorway, before it abruptly ended – like a Mad Max car-chase where the bad guy drives off the end of an elevated road under construction.  The contradiction is that while the fabric of the built environment is unraveling in many places (not as badly where the rich live of course), there is a contrasting sense of civil society re-establishing itself – rather than unraveling in tandem.  The weather here is mild and very pleasant. There should be lots of tourists. But there aren’t. So the touts and hawkers are desperate and even more competitive than usual. One taxi driver wanted an exorbitant rate we were unwilling to pay. But instead of turning his back and telling us to fuck off he laughed and pointed us to the Metro, which we then took. In spite of the anxiety we have sensed in most people we have met there has almost always been an underlying sense of kindness. They want to help. They want things to change. Somehow they seem to have hope.

It’s a great season to think of others.

So please think of the Sickle Cell Foundation of Tanzania this Christmas.

ChipIn: Sickle Cell Foundation of Tanzania

Cairo day 1

DCIM100GOPROAt 4:00am the storm-trooper-trolley-dollies turned all on the lights, marched down the aisle smashing down the tray tables and snapping ‘breakfast time’ in several languages. I have been woken up in more pleasant ways. Out the window I could just make out the Nile in the dark. We were getting close to Cairo. At 5:20 we landed and half an hour later we were waiting for our luggage. The 737 from Dar to Cairo was full of people going on the Haj or to other places further east. (I noticed a couple of guys with Halliburton backpacks on their way to Bagdad. According to the writing on the backpacks, Halliburton was winner of the 2011 quality service provider award. I guess waterboarding is a recognised service these days. At least they were probably not bothered by the 4am wakeup. Used to it – or inflicting it.) Since most people on the plane were connecting to other flights there were only five or six of us waiting to collect bags. It still took an hour. But everything arrived intact.

After we had checked into the hotel I went and found a taxi to start the process of getting my Ethiopian and Sudanese visas. It took about an hour and half to find the Ethiopian Embassy. They had moved to a new building. And it took a while to find somebody who knew where the new place was. But we finally find it and the process was very easy and civilized. I filled in a form, attached a photo the TdA letter and $30 and handed it to a guy sitting behind a big desk. He asked a few questions and told me to come back at 2pm. I did and now have the visa. The Sudanese visa looks like it will be a bit more of a scramble. I went to the Sudanese embassy in Garden City, a bizarre place that look s like the side entrance to city prison. There is a small, glassless window about 18 inches square with three 1-½ inch diameter stainless steel bars crossing it. You had to attract the attention of and then talk to somebody through this. Turns out the Garden City Embassy is closing and no longer in business. I eventually found out that the new embassy will open for business on January 2 in al Dokki. OK. We wait.

By now it was mid afternoon. After a short nap we went to the north end of Zamalek to a café called Maison Thomas, est. 1922 for dinner. Good pizza, no beer. A real bit of French Riviera circa 1935. Lovely architecture, ambiance and food.  Then home for a good long sleep.

It’s a great season to think of others.

So please think of the Sickle Cell Foundation of Tanzania this Christmas.

ChipIn: Sickle Cell Foundation of Tanzania